The Women Writing Women, a writing collective behind the independent news website womenwritingwomen.com, expresses its disgust over the court’s decision to convict Maria Ressa and Reynaldo Santos, Jr. in a cyber-libel case.
Ressa and Santos were guilty for cyber-libel under the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 on June 15, 2020. This was the case filed by Wilfredo Dy Keng against Ressa, Santos and their news organization, Rappler, for an article written in May 2012. Keng is a business man with well-placed connections.
The court’s decision, penned by Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa, rests on conjectures, inaccuracies and blindness to the function of journalism in society. For example, it states that Ressa’s title of executive editor is a “clever ruse” to escape responsibility in the newsroom. It also claimed that correcting a typographical error is republishing when in fact erratum is an old printing industry practice. The decision also betrays a limited computer know-how when it stated that the original article that is subject of a libel complaint could no longer be found online and only the corrected version is available. The judge could have asked for the assistance of a computer literate student to easily call up the piece from internet archives.
What is also disturbing in the 37-page decision is quoting Nelson Mandela, a global icon of freedom, to create an effect that the guilty verdict favors press freedom. The decision included this line: “As Nelson Mandela said: ‘for to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others’.” This line has yielded two million results on Google, even appearing in cute quote cards for easy and innocuous lifting. However the decision has misapplied Mandela’s words. Mandela is an icon of freedom, and using his words to suppress free press is an insult to the struggle he had waged against silencing in the time of apartheid in South Africa.
Perhaps the judge could search further online to discover a February 14, 1994 speech by Mandela before the International Press Institute Congress where he clearly stated his commitment to press freedom. In that address, he said:
“A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy. The press must be free from state interference. It must have the economic strength to stand up to the blandishments of government officials. It must have sufficient independence from vested interests to be bold and inquiring without fear or favour. It must enjoy the protection of the constitution, so that it can protect our rights as citizens”
The guilty verdict for Ressa and Santos will surely please the Duterte government that has a record of muzzling the media, including the refusal to renew the franchise of ABS-CBN, banning reporters from some media organizations, implicating some journalists in a ridiculous plot to overthrow the government, and red-tagging of some independent journalists. Add to that is government reliance on disinformation strategies through the use of trolls, fake news sites, and military agents that target citizens and journalists alike who criticized the government over social media. In other words, the conviction of Ressa and Santos is among the contemptible acts of the Duterte administration, with the effect of crowning itself the enemy of press freedom and of free expression.
The Women Writing Women joins the rest of the media community in condemning the guilty verdict and denouncing the acts of the Duterte administration to undermine press freedom, impair the practice of critical and independent media, and endanger the lives of journalists. We will continue to defend press freedom and hold the line. (June 15, 2020)